Most Americans consume far more calories than they realize. The culprit? Many people eat more calories than they need because they have a warped sense of what an appropriate portion size is for their particular nutritional needs. The result is an epidemic of overeating and a growing number of people characterized as obese.
Since the mid-1980s, portion sizes have grown significantly. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation performed a study that found:
- Adults today consume an average of 300 more calories per day than they did in 1985.
- Portion sizes have grown dramatically over the last 40 years.
- Americans eat out much more than they used to.
To maintain a healthy weight or lose weight, you have to manage your calorie intake. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that you enjoy your food, but eat less of it. By controlling portion size, you can still enjoy your favorite foods without overindulging.
Serving sizes essential to good nutrition
Understanding the concept of a standard serving size is essential to good nutrition. Standard serving sizes help consumers, health professionals, and food manufacturers find a common language for communicating how much of a certain food is recommended.
Although serving sizes are standardized, individual portion sizes vary because people have different caloric requirements. Portion size also depends on a person's weight management goals and health needs. For example, pregnant and breastfeeding women may require larger portions of food than women who are not pregnant or nursing.
Nutritional needs vary
Portion sizes and overall dietary requirements depend on several factors, including activity level. For example, an inactive person may only need ¾ to 1 cup of cereal in the morning, which is a typical serving size. Someone who runs several miles a day, though, may need to eat 2 to 3 standard serving sizes to meet their nutritional requirements. To help determine a standard serving size, measure out what is listed on the "Nutrition Facts" food label found on all packaged foods. In general, the USDA recommends the following nutritional guidelines:
It also is important to note that many prepackaged foods contain multiple servings, even though the nutritional information on the label is for 1 serving. For example, many people could easily consume a 20-ounce soda in a sitting, but it actually contains 2.5 servings. A 3-ounce bag of potato chips may easily be eaten all at once, but it accounts for 3 servings. This can result in too many calories consumed and not enough calories burned to maintain a healthy weight.
Ways to estimate portion sizes
Try following these models to approximate portion sizes:
- A small bar of soap = one serving (3 ounces) of meat, poultry, or fish
- A closed fist = one serving (1 cup or 8 ounces) of pasta
- Your thumb = one serving (1 1/2 ounces) of cheese
- A tennis ball = one serving (1 ounce) of cereal
When at home:
- Eyeball the serving sizes of your favorite foods using some of the models listed above.
- Measure out single servings onto your plate and remember what they look like. Figure out how many servings should make up your personal portion, depending on whether you need to lose, gain, or maintain weight.
- Avoid serving food family style. Serve up plates with appropriate portions in the kitchen, and do not go back for seconds.
- Consider using smaller plates, bowls, or glasses.
- Never eat out of the bag or carton.
- If you feel hungry, eat a healthy snack. It may help you eat smaller portions at mealtime.
When in restaurants:
- Ask for half or smaller portions.
- Eyeball an appropriate portion and ask for a takeout container for the rest before you eat.
- If you order dessert, share it or choose a healthier option like fruit.
Seek dietary guidance
If you are unsure about your personal nutrition requirements, go to the Choose My Plate website to get eating recommendations based on factors like your age, sex, and activity level. For an even more individualized plan and for motivation, seek the advice of a registered dietitian. These professionals can create individual menus and food plans that are suited to your specific weight management and overall health goals.
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